The Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine was evacuated midday Wednesday after reports of people acting suspiciously with a backpack.
The fort, the most popular attraction in St. Augustine, reopened after about 30 minutes, according to St. Augustine police.
Someone told police that a man and two women with a backpack at the fort didn’t have the backpack with them when they left.
Police found the three and learned they were part of a group of five an instructor from Flash Point International, a security business in DeLand, and four students.
“He said that they were just down to visit the fort,” said Cmdr. Michelle Perry of the St. Augustine Police Department.
Perry said after about an hour, that story changed.
The teacher eventually told officers he took the students to the fort to do a surveillance and counter-surveillance training exercise.
“The two outside the fort would be watching the people inside the fort and then they would leave their site and come back,” Perry said. “The other two that were outside were supposed to say what they didn't have that they had before.”
The instructor did not tell police or the U.S. Park Service about the training exercise beforehand.
"This is an example of remaining vigilant about what is happening around you," FBI Special Agent in Charge Michelle Klimt said. "We encourage the public to be aware of their surroundings at all times, and if you see something suspicious, say something to law enforcement."
Because of the concern, law enforcement ended up not only evacuating the fort but closing all the roads around it.
“We were just here playing with my son in the grass, and Rangers came out and pushed everybody back across the street (and) said there had been a threat of some sort and made everybody evacuate,” said Josh Reece, who was visiting from Georgia.
Officials said they're glad they reacted so strongly, even though the incident turned out to be a false alarm.
“The visitors did the right thing reporting to the Rangers, and I don't know if it was the same person that also reported to the local dispatch, but they did the right thing letting us know,” said Kimberly Mayo, chief ranger with the U.S. National Park Service. “It's always better to be safe in these scenarios.”
While investigators talked with the group involved in the surveillance exercise, the National Park Service Rangers searched the fort along with the St. Johns County K-9 unit.
It's not clear if the people involved in the training exercise will face any charges.
A spokesman for Flash Point International said the training was routine and that the company has been doing exercises like that for more than 20 years without any issues.
The spokesman said that because of events going on in the world, the fact that one team member was Mediterranean might have changed the response.
The spokesman apologized to everyone involved for any interruptions and said the company learned from this and will make sure it doesn’t happen again.
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